THE LAST LESSON





Little Franz didn't want to go to school, that morning. He would much

rather have played truant. The air was so warm and still,--you could hear

the blackbird singing at the edge of the wood, and the sound of the

Prussians drilling, down in the meadow behind the old sawmill. He would

_so_ much rather have played truant! Besides, this was the day for the

lesson in the rule of participles; and the rule of participles in French

is very, very long, and very hard, and it has more exceptions than rule.

Little Franz did not know it at all. He did not want to go to school.



But, somehow, he went. His legs carried him reluctantly into the village

and along the street. As he passed the official bulletin-board before the

town hall, he noticed a little crowd round it, looking at it. That was the

place where the news of lost battles, the requisition for more troops, the

demands for new taxes were posted. Small as he was, little Franz had seen

enough to make him think, "What _now_, I wonder?" But he could not stop to

see; he was afraid of being late.



When he came to the school-yard his heart beat very fast; he was afraid he

_was_ late, after all, for the windows were all open, and yet he heard no

noise,--the schoolroom was perfectly quiet. He had been counting on the

noise and confusion before school,--the slamming of desk covers, the

banging of books, the tapping of the master's cane and his "A little less

noise, please,"--to let him slip quietly into his seat unnoticed. But no;

he had to open the door and walk up the long aisle, in the midst of a

silent room, with the master looking straight at him. Oh, how hot his

cheeks felt, and how hard his heart beat! But to his great surprise the

master didn't scold at all. All he said was, "Come quickly to your place,

my little Franz; we were just going to begin without you!"



Little Franz could hardly believe his ears; that wasn't at all the way the

master was accustomed to speak. It was very strange! Somehow--everything

was very strange. The room looked queer. Everybody was sitting so still,

so straight--as if it were an exhibition day, or something very

particular. And the master--he looked strange, too; why, he had on his

fine lace jabot and his best coat, that he wore only on holidays, and his

gold snuff-box in his hand. Certainly it was very odd. Little Franz looked

all round, wondering. And there in the back of the room was the oddest

thing of all. There, on a bench, sat _visitors_. Visitors! He could not

make it out; people never came except on great occasions,--examination

days and such. And it was not a holiday. Yet there were the agent, the

old blacksmith, the farmer, sitting quiet and still. It was very, very

strange.



Just then the master stood up and opened school. He said, "My children,

this is the last time I shall ever teach you. The order has come from

Berlin that henceforth nothing but German shall be taught in the schools

of Alsace and Lorraine. This is your last lesson in French. I beg you, be

very attentive."



_His last lesson in French!_ Little Franz could not believe his ears; his

last lesson--ah, _that_ was what was on the bulletin-board! It flashed

across him in an instant. That was it! His last lesson in French--and he

scarcely knew how to read and write--why, then, he should never know how!

He looked down at his books, all battered and torn at the corners; and

suddenly his books seemed quite different to him, they

seemed--somehow--like friends. He looked at the master, and he seemed

different, too,--like a very good friend. Little Franz began to feel

strange himself. Just as he was thinking about it, he heard his name

called, and he stood up to recite.



It was the rule of participles.



Oh, what wouldn't he have given to be able to say it off from beginning to

end, exceptions and all, without a blunder! But he could only stand and

hang his head; he did not know a word of it. Then through the hot

pounding in his ears he heard the master's voice; it was quite gentle; not

at all the scolding voice he expected. And it said, "I'm not going to

punish you, little Franz. Perhaps you are punished enough. And you are not

alone in your fault. We all do the same thing,--we all put off our tasks

till to-morrow. And--sometimes--to-morrow never comes. That is what it has

been with us. We Alsatians have been always putting off our education till

the morrow; and now they have a right, those people down there, to say to

us, 'What! You call yourselves French, and cannot even read and write the

French language? Learn German, then!'"



And then the master spoke to them of the French language. He told them how

beautiful it was, how clear and musical and reasonable, and he said that

no people could be hopelessly conquered so long as it kept its language,

for the language was the key to its prison-house. And then he said he was

going to tell them a little about that beautiful language, and he

explained the rule of participles.



And do you know, it was just as simple as ABC! Little Franz understood

every word. It was just the same with the rest of the grammar lesson. I

don't know whether little Franz listened harder, or whether the master

explained better; but it was all quite clear, and simple.



But as they went on with it, and little Franz listened and looked, it

seemed to him that the master was trying to put the whole French language

into their heads in that one hour. It seemed as if he wanted to teach them

all he knew, before he went,--to give them all he had,--in this last

lesson.



From the grammar he went on to the writing lesson. And for this, quite new

copies had been prepared. They were written on clean, new slips of paper,

and they were:--



France: Alsace.

France: Alsace.



All up and down the aisles they hung out from the desks like little

banners, waving:--



France: Alsace.

France: Alsace.



And everybody worked with all his might,--not a sound could you hear but

the scratching of pens on the "France: Alsace."



Even the little ones bent over their up and down strokes with their

tongues stuck out to help them work.



After the writing came the reading lesson, and the little ones sang their

_ba_, _be_, _bi_, _bo_, _bu_.



Right in the midst of it, Franz heard a curious sound, a big deep voice

mingling with the children's voices. He turned round, and there, on the

bench in the back of the room, the old blacksmith sat with a big ABC book

open on his knees. It was his voice Franz had heard. He was saying the

sounds with the little children,--_ba_, _be_, _bi_, _bo_, _bu_. His voice

sounded so odd, with the little voices,--so very odd,--it made little

Franz feel queer. It seemed so funny that he thought he would laugh; then

he thought he wouldn't laugh, he felt--he felt very queer.



So it went on with the lessons; they had them all. And then, suddenly, the

town clock struck noon. And at the same time they heard the tramp of the

Prussians' feet, coming back from drill.





It was time to close school.



The master stood up. He was very pale. Little Franz had never seen him

look so tall. He said:--



"My children--my children"--but something choked him; he could not go on.

Instead he turned and went to the blackboard and took up a piece of chalk.

And then he wrote, high up, in big white letters, "Vive la France!"



And he made a little sign to them with his head, "That is all; go away."





THE LARKS IN THE CORNFIELD THE LEGEND OF BABOUSCKA facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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